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Five Takeaways to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Watershed Management

Watershed management is an inherently participatory process. Achieving clean water goals requires the inclusion of diverse views and considering the equity of impacts and solutions – yet, underrepresented communities aren’t always, well, represented in watershed planning efforts.

Many practitioners and educators who work in watershed management understand the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), but there have so far been few spaces for conversation about what it means to advance DEI in watershed management. At the recent Climate Intersections Conference, hosted in July 2022 by the North Central Region Water Network, we organized a symposium to create a conversation space for this important topic.

Here we share five takeaways from the symposium, which included a kick-off panel discussion by practitioners with experience advancing DEI in community-based work: Jennifer Niemi, Director of Native Studies at College of St. Scholastica; Melanie Bomier, Assistant Manager of Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District; and Andrea Crouse, Community Development Manager at Zeitgeist Arts.

Don’t forget about the people

Watershed professionals care about water and the environment, and they use science and data to identify problems and measure success. With this focus, it can be easy to forget that watershed projects take place in communities of people, often who also care about the local natural resources but haven’t historically had a voice in the decision-making.

Panelist Melanie Bomier shared how the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District uses social data, such as the Social Vulnerability Index, to identify populations in local watersheds that have been historically overlooked in the watershed planning process. It is also important to then take the extra step of “going to the people” – building relationships, listening to their needs, and understanding their perspectives to ensure inclusive goals that align with those of the people who live there.

Underserved populations may have priorities, values, and knowledge that haven’t yet been considered but can enrich watershed work and ensure everyone benefits.

Build trust and relationships

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” was a great nugget shared by panelist Andrea Crouse. Indeed, relationship building is a skill, and doing it well takes time and commitment to the process.

It also takes reciprocity, or a mutually beneficial exchange. Listening, learning, and building trust need to come first, before presenting project needs, especially when working in a community that has been marginalized.

Building trust requires flexibility, transparency, and patience. If, through listening, you realize that your project won’t actually help local communities, despite your best intentions, be ready to adjust.

While project and grant deadlines can be real constraints to relationship building, they should not be the drivers of building connection. Begin by factoring in the time necessary to show up and be consistent long before diving into projects. Authentic engagement can help watershed professionals and the communities they serve lay a foundation of respect and cooperation that can lead to trust that the work proposed will help the community in the long run.

Listen to what people need

Another great nugget, this one shared by panelist Jennifer Niemi, was “Listen with the ear of your heart.” Indeed, listening deeply, with a willingness to receive new information from diverse perspectives, came up over and over again in the symposium as imperative to ensuring equitable and inclusive participation and outcomes.

In watershed work, it is critical that all voices are heard, listened to, and respected. Listening goes hand-in-hand with building trust. Through listening, it may become clear that, while community members have different perspectives, values, or priorities, they can still get to the same goal.

Listening allows you to reassess, revisit, and pivot as necessary to ensure you are meeting the diverse needs of the people in your watershed. If you’re looking for tips on how to create listening spaces, read this previous post.

Foster diverse leadership

Our work is always stronger when those making the decisions represent the diversity within our communities. Even after identifying underserved populations, building trust, and listening, it is important to empower and provide opportunities for people in those communities to participate in leadership roles.

For example, panelist Andrea Crouse described a community liaison program that Zeitgeist Arts implemented to advance a local health initiative in an underserved neighborhood of Duluth. They hired community members to serve on a steering team, gather input from neighbors, and help shape the strategy that would have buy-in from local residents – thereby also building local capacity and leadership.

It is important to build a leadership structure that fits the community. This might mean providing training or continuing education. It might also mean creating paid positions with clear objectives to legitimize the leadership roles. Regardless, it requires a commitment to learn from the people in the community what would make serving as leaders rewarding and valuable to them.

Consider the logistics of inclusion

The logistics of life, such as scheduling and childcare, can often be barriers to participation. A practical way to increase opportunities for inclusive engagement is to remove those barriers to the best of your ability.

Providing food, transportation, and even childcare can make it easier for people to participate. While scheduling is perhaps an incurable challenge, learning the differences in people’s daily or seasonal rhythms and planning accordingly can help to minimize scheduling pains.

An important observation by symposium participants was the need for more flexibility in grant funding to address logistical needs that enable inclusive participation, since expenses such as transportation or childcare are not always permitted. Furthermore, funds can also be limited for developing content and materials in different languages, but there may be an opportunity to work with youth to be translators for their communities.

One of the breakout groups talked about creative ways to get community input in settings other than formal meetings, which may not always be platforms for representative input. For example, one participant shared how, at a festival, their municipality invited community members to write love letters to their parks to learn what people value about them. Creativity can go a long way in reaching beyond the usual audiences.

The end note for the symposium was the importance of sharing stories like this and learning from each other about the successes and lessons learned in making watershed management projects diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Got a story you’d like to share on the Human Capital blog? Contact Jenny Seifert.  

Header image credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, We Are Water MN

About the Author

Jenny Seifert is a Watershed Outreach Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, working under the North Central Region Water Network branded program. Her work focuses on supporting and expanding the success of conservation professionals and farmers in their work to improve and protect soil and water resources.

Lisa Merrifield is a Community and Economic Development Specialist at University of Illinois Extension and serves on the leadership team for the North Central Region Water Network. Lisa focuses on natural resource and environmental community and coalition planning, particularly as it relates to stormwater management in the Midwest.

Anne Sawyer is an Extension Educator in Water Resources at University of Minnesota Extension, focusing on rural/agricultural watershed-based education for audiences including concerned citizens, local and regional planners, and water resource professionals.